CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – In Matt LaCosse's three seasons at Illinois, he's played with and followed in the footsteps of some talented tight ends, some of them good enough to land in the NFL.
But on Saturdays, the big receivers were seldom featured in the game plan. In 2012, Illini tight ends caught 23 balls and three touchdowns.
Last Saturday against Miami (Ohio), three Illinois tight ends combined for six catches, 82 yards and four back-breaking touchdowns in Illinois' 50-14 win. The touchdowns were a single-game school record.
LaCosse says it's not just a one-game change. He and fellow tight ends Evan Wilson, a senior, and junior Jon Davis are, for the first time since they came to Champaign, an integral part of the offense. He says it's happened in part because of new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's attack that's being widely credited with reviving the offense at Illinois (3-1) by confusing opponents with any number of looks.
"It's awesome, it's amazing how multiple things can be," LaCosse said. "It's a blast to play in when all three tight ends can have a touchdown."
LaCosse said the tight ends have earned their way into Cubit's game-day plans, too.
"I think our tight ends have shown that we could play and that we're pretty good," he said.
Illinois has recruited strong talent at tight end for at least the past seven seasons. Several, including New England Patriot Michael Hoomanawanui, went on to the NFL. In four seasons, Hoomanawanui caught 40 passes at Illinois for 490 yards and four touchdowns.
LaCosse said that, before this season, he sometimes thought the tight ends weren't used enough.
"You could say that. There were a few frustrations here and there," he said. "So it's nice to be used and be a focal point of the offense."
So far this season, Illinois' tight ends have combined for 21 catches, 256 yards and six touchdowns.
Cubit says the tight ends are a key piece of his offense, both by design and in how senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase makes on-field decisions.
"(Using them) gives your wideouts a little bit of a break so they're not out there trying to get open 40, 50 plays," Cubit said. "And then Nate — in that whole package, Nate's really in charge."
One of those touchdown passes Saturday was a ball lofted high to the back of the end zone over a pair of RedHawks defenders in the direction of Wilson. The 6-6 tight end leaped over everyone to pull down a ball that looked like it was headed out of bounds.
Scheelhaase said he's known for a while that he might be able to throw balls up high and have Wilson or others outjump the coverage, but seeing it done in a game gives him real confidence.
"I think — and we talked about that this last week — that there were going to be opportunities in that game, kind of even if they were covered," he said. "It was still really our best option to kind of throw it up high to those guys."
Big days against Miami, winless and statistically among the worst teams in the country, are one thing. Having a big day in the Big Ten opener Saturday at Nebraska, would be another.
But Cubit says the prospect of a tougher pass rush from the Cornhuskers won't keep him from putting his tight ends in positions to catch balls down the field on Saturday.
"No, no, we're going to send them out there and let me go do what they need to do," he said.
NOTES: Coach Tim Beckman expects Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez to play Saturday. Martinez hasn't practiced in two weeks because of an injury. Cornhusker coach Bo Pelini says Tommy Armstrong Jr. will probably start if Martinez can't practice Tuesday or Wednesday. ... Beckman said the coaching staff scripts plays like Saturday's early onside kick and two-point conversion before games. He said he likes such high-risk, high-reward plays. "I like playing the game with a little bit of, I guess, risk, I don't know if I'm a riverboat gambler or anything." ... Illinois' offense is spreading the ball around, using 13 receivers and 10 ball carriers so far. "It's been exciting just to see guys step up and make plays," Scheelhaase said.
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